Eleven years ago, the illegally acquired art collection by Vasil Bozkhov was legalised by the Bulgarian authorities. Now, it is the subject of a clash between the oligarch and the government touching upon questions of ownership and the role of the state.
In the shadow of the Covid-19 pandemic, a scandal with the potential to tumble Boiko Borisov from power is swirling in Bulgaria.
In January, the Prosecutor’s Office accused Vasil Bozhkov (also known as ‘The Skull’) of heading an organised crime group, extortions, corruption and abetting to misuse power. Bozhkov is among, if not the oldest Bulgarian oligarch that started his career with the end of communism. His wealth is not known, but a dozen years ago, the Polish Wprost magazine was ranking him among the top 50 wealthiest men in Central Europe.
Bozhkov’s main businesses are in the gambling industry. Since early 1990s Bozhkov took over casino’s, bingo halls and hotels and was often associated with the strongest men that were running the Bulgarian underground. Bozhkov has also owned various football clubs. For the last two years until last week, he was also the owner of the most famous Bulgarian football club – Levski Sofia.
Last, but not least, Bozhkov is recognised as the wealthiest collector of antiques in Bulgaria. Parts of his impressive collection of Thracian, Greek and Roman artefacts, for which he was offered 600 million dollars, were presented in Brussels on the eve of Bulgaria’s membership to the EU.
Battle against the state
Bozhkov’s problems started with an accusation from the Vice Prime Minister Valeri Simeonov, that his ‘National Lottery’ has caused millions of loss to the national budget in terms of unpaid taxes. Bozhkov tried to defend himself with open statements that “this time they have decided to get rid of me” and mobilising the Levski’s ultras. Since his tactic failed, he escaped to UAE, from where he continues his battle against the state.
A week ago, Bozhkov published a comic and sent an open letter to the attorney general, accusing Prime Minister Boiko Borisov, Finance Minister Vladislav Goranov and the head of the Parliament’s Budget Commission, Menda Stoianova, of abuse of political influence and power, corruption, intimidation and misuse of public functions.
Despite the enormous potential of this story, this article is not an attempt to analyse the conflict between Bozhkov and Borisov. It was first written in the context of a particular dimension of the conflict’s early stage.
Upon Bozhkov’s escape, the state tried to confiscate parts of his collection. Although the problem of Bulgaria’s antique black market is a story in itself, for now, it is sufficient to say that its annual value is worth billions of euro. Bozhkov is considered to be the godfather of this market, but no accusations against him in that respect were made.
What is more, eleven years ago his collection was legalised with the assistance of the then Bulgarian ombudsman.
Hence, there is no direct connection between Bozhkov’s collection and his current situation. The remainder of the article is a more philosophical reflection on the role of private property as a basic principle of democracy and the captured state.
Not a trivial question
The question of Vasil Bozhkov’s antique collection, its ownership and the role of the state, have been overshadowed by the political conflict between the Skull and Borisov. The question is not trivial.
On the one hand, there is the search for an answer about the “omnipotent state”, as Ludwig von Mises calls it when he reflects on the rise of the totalitarian state. Interestingly, von Mises was one of the ten best-selling authors in the largest bookstore chain in Bulgaria at the end of 2016.
On the other hand, there is the notion of the protection of private property, which is the essence of Western democracy, proclaimed by John Locke as one of the most ancient human rights.
Apparently aware of the calibre of the accused Bozhkov as an opponent, the state took out its heavy weapons – “its material appendages” according to Lenin – and put into action the “expropriation of the expropriator” not only of Bozhkov’s business but also of his collection.
Vasil Bozhkov does not seem to hide that the collection is the greatest achievement of his life.
His bootlickers compare him to the Hristo and Evlogi Georgiev brothers who built the Sofia University in the nineteenth century. They consider him the contemporary saviour of Bulgaria’s heritage.
His grand project is the creation of a private museum. Bozhkov purchased the building of the former Telephone Palace in the city centre of Sofia and established the Thrace Foundation, which formally manages his collection. Now the thousands of exhibits eventually could fall into the hands of the state. But it is not clear why.
Bozhkov’s collection was legalised in 2009, whereas his conflict with the state concerns the last seven years. Although the legalisation of his collection was scandalous in itself, it was never questioned by the authorities. Hence, in theory, his collection should be inviolable.
Nikolay Staykov from the Anti-Corruption Fund rightly raises the following questions about the accused and his collection (reformulated here to facilitate the unknown):
- Where has the state been for the last thirty years?
- Why and how did the state patronise a “mobster” and a “criminal” (as the prosecution apparently defines him)?
- How exactly was a law passed to legalise a private collection containing illegally acquired movable cultural heritage?
- Even if Bozhkov claims that he only bought from treasure hunters, does it make him part of a criminal scheme?
- Do both the accused and the prosecution incite to violate the law?
- Is the accused at the heart of Bulgarian ‘treasure hunting’?
For thirty years, Bozhkov, like most of his activists, has bought lines of defenders who are ready to defend injustice in the name of their own well-being. Today, everyone associated with the Bozhkov’swill defend it because they are part of it, and the notion of private property gives them the moral comfort to think that justice is on their side.
The truth is that Bozhkov’s collection – dug up, sold and resold illegally in the last thirty years – is the property of the Bulgarian state, which the authorities have legalised, thereby encouraging lawlessness and criminal activity.
However, the “state” actively participated in the legalisation of Bozhkov’s collection.
On 31 January of this year, Liberta.bg recalled the following: Bozhkov’s collection is registered according to the law and is kept by the Thrace Foundation – and not in his name. Thus, the need to prove origin has also disappeared.
In 2009, Ombudsman Ginyo Ganev challenged texts of the Cultural Heritage Act before the Constitutional Court. Back then, the court ruled in defence of the collectors, respectively of the largest collector – Vasil Bozhkov.
By seven to five votes, the judges rejected the requirements of the law for the order in which the owner must prove the origin of his antiques. With this decision, the owners of ancient national wealth can prove their right to property without an official document, and even with a letter, will, testimonies, witnesses, as well as to invoke a five-year statute of limitations.
In order for the collection to be taken away from him, the nullity of its legalisation must first be proved. Following this, everything related to the collection’s creation can be investigated and only then, artefacts can be confiscated as material evidence of a crime. The perpetrators must be punished, and the collection given to the relevant state institutions.
However, the devastating effects of the collection’s creation will never be restored. The many cultural layers, the context of the discovery of the individual artefacts and their history have been irretrievably lost because of thugs replacing honest work and the common good.
The only thing left for the citizens is the opportunity to enjoy the beauty of the collection and not to forget what boundless damage the Skull caused to the Bulgarian culture, history and state.
The spirit of the law
Private property is inviolable and this is a fundamental principle of the rule of law. No one can appropriate someone’s property like that.
The various private collections, if acquired legitimately, must be under the special protection of the law, especially if they contain movable cultural heritage. The state should be the first to have a possible right of redemption if the owner wants to part with his collection.
However, the state cannot dispose of private property according to its needs.
This is the spirit of the law on cultural heritage. And such is the tradition of settling property everywhere in the civilised world. The artefacts of all collections should be in the register of movable cultural heritage.
However, when this property is acquired through crime, it has to be confiscated. What happened is that the collection has been seized, a crime has not been proven, while the accused is at large and is now giving answers to the questions raised by Nikolay Staykov through the media.
In this case, the problem is that the issue of the collection is a separate one from Bozhkov’s activities in the gambling industry. Prosecutor General Ivan Geshev will have to work hard and investigate hundreds (if not thousands) of people connected with the government and state institutions, the Skull and his interests and the political parties in order to prove the illegal origin of Bozhkov’s collection. I just do not believe this will happen.
Geshev claims to be Bulgaria’s saviour from what he perceives as a “rotten transition”. With Bozhkov’s collection, he has a chance to prove that it is not just a matter of redistributing the Skull’s businesses and eliminating him but – as he claims – to set about repairing the state.
This article is part of the #DemocraCE project. A Bulgarian version is available on Икономически живот (Economic Life).